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Dean’s blog: Meeting students where they are to close all gaps

Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

Over the past week, you may have read articles about efforts to close gaps in math proficiency sourced from an Associated Press story quoting our Department of Mathematical Sciences Chair, Maria Emelianenko. Months before the articles started appearing, a few of our college leadership and faculty across and within the biology, chemistry, physics departments shared concerning national trends regarding proficiency in mathematics and reading that might negatively impact our STEM students both now and in the future. They highlighted the critical need to consider new and enhanced ways to help our students succeed.

Coupled with this proficiency situation is the wellness state and engagement level of students. Whether it be due to illness, or a preference for the flexibility of online or remote learning, national data show a rising number of students across the nation are not attending class as often or even just not returning to high school at all. If they are not in class, they are unable to learn or build their confidence in subjects where they may be struggling.

Some of the articles suggested students across the country were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Others noted this had started to occur prior to the pandemic, yet the drop became more pronounced over the past few years. Both NSEC and ACT reports indicate some concerning trends, although undoubtedly there are many variables in this equation and more data would be needed to arrive at definitive conclusions about the root causes. Regardless of the cause, we realized we needed to creatively meet our students where they are and establish and expand programs to help get them to where they want to go.

So we did just that.

Just how big of a gap are we talking about? The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was given to a nationwide sample of 8,700 13-year old students in each subject during October to December of 2022. Results showed reading scores fell by four points since 2020 and math scores on average dropped by nine points, the lowest levels since 1990, and reading at their lowest since 2004.

With the rapid expansion of STEM careers relying on mathematics, including data science, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing to name a few, mastering basic mathematic concepts and building students’ confidence became primary goals. Our commitment to student success without sacrificing the quality of instruction has always been one of the guiding principles that is really paying off.

Fortunately, our Mason Science STEM Accelerator program has a strong infrastructure in place. We have an active Learning Assistant program of peer mentors deployed across many of our introductory level classrooms. Our existing tutoring center offered more sessions both in person and virtually to accommodate various student populations. And we offered a program before the start of last spring semester to help students voluntarily plug in to areas where they wanted additional support and practice.  

We already offered a highly valued summer STEM Bridge Camp which included mathematics instruction and support for incoming students. This year’s camp for incoming students switched from one week to two, and expanded the residential components activities to include more team building and relationship building activities. We added an additional Math Bootcamp taught by faculty and learning assistants, featuring a new placement test software with an adaptive version (ALEKS) to provide students additional remediation and support between placement test attempts.

According to Emelianenko, “I am extremely proud at the success of our departmental summer camp initiatives that help us quickly identify student needs and build student confidence through individualized attention and cohort building activities.”

It takes a village to run these camps and we are fortunate to have dedicated support from across the college.

Our students who take the time during their first summer before college to use our support system and invest in their learning are impressive. I am also proud of our extremely talented and dedicated educators who are able to engage the students and address their needs using creative, hands-on approaches tailored to their individual needs.

We are fortunate to have years of experience developing active learning and experiential learning strategies that help differentiate content delivery based on the student learning style and emphasize conceptual understanding compared to rogue memorization. The Math Boot Camp team shared amazing results this summer, with students on average getting a 59% increase in their math test scores right after completing our camp.

Although there is much more work to be done, educators across the country are working hard to join forces and identify best practices when it comes to leveraging active learning tools and technology to help get students the confidence they need to succeed in math. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with others and share our experiences in this space.